Manning Marable's "African-American Empowerment in the Face of Racism: The Political Aftermath of the Battle of Los Angeles"
In response to the 1992 LA Uprising, the late scholar Manning Marable wrote: “Ultimately, the choice of ‘violence or nonviolence’ is not ours, but white America’s. Those who make peaceful change and democratic advancement impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”
Marable's essay, “African-American Empowerment in the Face of Racism: The Political Aftermath of the Battle of Los Angeles,” originally published in Beyond Black and White: Transforming African-American Politics, resonates with the Ferguson protests and their popular conception as a riots rather than acts of resistance. With the hope of giving perspective to current events, we bring you Marable’s essay in full.
African-American Empowerment in the Face of Racism: The Political Aftermath of the Battle of Los Angeles
The racial violence which erupted across Los Angeles in 1992 represented the most profound urban unrest in the United States since the turbulent sixties. Yet the fires which torched thousands of buildings had not even cooled before white politicians and the media attempted to attribute the rebellion to various sociological problems within the African-American community. Vice President Dan Quayle pointed to the factors of sexual permissiveness, welfare, and the breakdown of the nuclear family as contributing to the racial unrest among African-Americans. Others in the media criticized African-American political leaders, especially congresswoman Maxine Waters, for characterizing the “riot” as a “rebellion,” and for failing to uphold law and order in the ghetto. lost in all the accusations was any serious effort to comprehend the social significance of this cathartic event.
An understanding of the racial “Battle of Los Angeles” requires consideration of at least three pivotal issues. We must first identify the root causes of the racial uprising. The disgraceful verdict of the Rodney King trial, which vindicated the brutal actions of four white police officers, was only the immediate catalyst for the social explosion. Second, how did the uprising affect sectors of the African-American community specifically, and various racial and ethnic groups generally? What was the special significance of the Rodney King trial, for example, to upper-middle-class African-Americans who lived miles away from south-central Los Angeles? What is the significance of the assaults aimed at Asian-American-owned property by young African-Americans? how did white Americans perceive this unanticipated revolt?
Third, and most significantly, is the burning issue of violence in a racist society. We cannot begin to analyze Los Angeles without exploring the essential nexus between coercion or violence and the historical and contemporary status of african-americans as an oppressed people. Racism is, in essence, institutionalized violence aimed against African-American people – in economics, education, employment, political affairs, and all aspects of daily life. When African-Americans resort to violence against that system of social control, are they simply “rioting” or do their collective actions have a more profound meaning? And, given the history of racist coercion, what are the prospects of more serious African-American acts of violence against the system in the near future?
For generations, California has been known for its San Andreas fault, the geological fracture beneath the earth’s crust. The periodic eruptions along the fault line have been responsible for massive destruction and hundreds of deaths. Yet, far more devastating than the San Andreas fault is America’s “race/class fault line,” the jagged division of color and income, education and privilege which slashes across the soul of this nation. In California, the race/class fault line rudely separates the posh affluence of Hollywood and Beverly Hills from the crime, fear, and hunger of south-central los angeles. that same race and class division runs down Detroit’s Eight Mile Road, separating the poor, unemployed, and homeless from comfortable suburban white enclaves. It sets apart Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant from the multimillion-dollar estates in Connecticut’s posh suburbs. The Los Angeles race uprising can be understood only from the vantage point of the race/class fault line, because the violence unleashed by Rodney King’s court case was just a tremor along that division.
On different sides of the race/class fault, each group tends to perceive issues in radically different ways. The vast majority of all americans – African-American, Latino, Asian American and white – believed that the “innocent” verdict in the King case was wrong. But according to a poll in USA Today, 81 per cent of all African-Americans stated that the criminal justice system was clearly “biased against Black people.” Some 60 per cent of all African-Americans agreed that there was “very much” police brutality against people of color, and another 33 per cent believed that such violence was “considerable.” Conversely, only 36 per cent of all whites who responded believed that the justice system was racially biased. Only 17 per cent of whites were convinced that there was “excessive police brutality” against minorities.
The white public’s racist attitudes were reinforced by the rhetoric and contempt for African-Americans displayed by the nation’s white elected officials. For example, in a shameful display of political cowardice, President George Bush’s initial instinct was to attribute blame for the Los Angeles race revolt on the liberal “Great Society” programs of Lyndon Johnson, a quarter of a century ago. But when pressed for specific programs which had contributed to the racial crisis of today, White house press secretary Marlin Fitzwater could only mumble, “I don’t have a list with me.”
Did Bush mean the 1964 civil Rights act, which had outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations? Was the president blaming the National Housing act of 1968, which established the National Housing Partnership to promote the construction of houses for low- to middle-income people? Or maybe the reason people rioted was the 1965 Voting Rights act, which had established the principle of “one person, one vote” a century after the abolition of slavery. Bush’s pathetic effort to rewrite racial history, to blame the victim, was yet another example of his “Willie Horton” racial politics. the current agony of our inner cities is a direct and deliberate consequence of Reagan–Bush policies, and no amount of historical distortion can erase that fact.
On the white side of the race/class fault line, the response of most middle- and upper-class white Americans to the Los Angeles unrest was profoundly mixed. Opinion polls showed a new appreciation of the ghetto’s socioeconomic problems, and greater sympathy for the racism experienced by African-Americans within the legal system. But middle-class whites in southern California also took immediate steps to protect themselves, fearing that the police would be unable to check the unrest. In the first eleven days of May, California residents purchased 20,578 guns, a 50 per cent increase over last year’s rate. Frightened corporate personnel and professionals who had never owned firearms now stood in line, demanding shotguns and semi-automatic weapons. The National Rifle association, with 2.8 million members, added one thousand new members each day in the month after the racial explosion. Newspapers even reported instances where suburban whites fled in panic when confronted by anyone with a black face – delivery boys, mail carriers, and sanitation workers. Motivated by racism, guilt, anger, and fear, many whites tried to isolate themselves from the social chaos. In downtown Los Angeles at the peak of the unrest, dozens of whites drove the wrong way down one way streets, speeding through red lights. Barricades were erected in Westwood, and a swanky shopping mall in Beverly Hills was closed.
But the race/class fault line which trembled and shook across impoverished south-central Los Angeles also runs directly beneath the affluent white suburbs. This time, African-American and Latino young rebels weren’t content to destroy the symbols of ghetto economic exploitation. Violence and arson unexpectedly struck against white-owned property across Los Angeles County. The Bloods and Crips street gangs established a fragile peace pact, announcing to the media that the current street violence was “a slave rebellion, like other slave rebellions in Black history.” One local Samoan rap group declared that the rebellion was “great,” but that the violence against property should have been directed not against the Korean stores but at “the rich people in Beverly Hills.”
Much of the violence was in fact directed against the Asian American community. Over 1,800 Korean-owned stores were destroyed or vandalized, with property damage estimated at $300 million. Yet, as deplorable as this violence was, it represented a dual tragedy for both Asian Americans and African-Americans. Young African-Americans need to understand that it is not the Korean American small merchant who denies capital for investment in the African-American community, or controls the banks and financial institutions. It is not the Korean American community which commits police brutality against Latino and African-American citizens, or controls governmental policies, or dominates the political parties. Aggression against people of color is misplaced and misdirected. This doesn’t negate the legitimate grievances or differences of opinion which separate Korean Americans from Latinos and African-Americans. But it makes a unified response to race and class oppression virtually impossible.
The unanticipated eruption of rage stripped away the façade of African-American progress in the central cities, to show them boiling with the problems of poverty, drugs, gang violence, unemployment, poor schools, and deteriorating public housing. The white media tried desperately to turn attention away from these issues, in part by arguing that the Los Angeles uprising was merely a “riot” which was opposed by most African-Americans. This ignores the historical evidence about the dynamics of all civil unrest. After the Watts racial rebellion of 1965, for example, sociologists later determined that only about 15 per cent of all African-American ghetto residents had actually participated in the arson and violence. However, between one-third and half of all residents later expressed support for those who had destroyed white-owned property and attacked symbols of white authority. About two-thirds later agreed that “the targets of the rebellion got what they deserved.” So, although the majority of African-Americans in south-central Los Angeles didn’t take to the streets, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t alienated and outraged by race and class oppression.
A critical distinction must be made, therefore, between the notion of a “riot” and other forms of collective resistance – “insurrections,” “revolts,” “rebellions,” and “strikes.” The term “riot” connotes widespread criminal behavior disconnected from political objectives. An individualistic desire to loot and burn can be interpreted as just anti-social behavior, linked to daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “Black Matriarchy Thesis” and the absence of strong parental role models – at least according to Quayle. But any analysis based on what young African-Americans are actually saying and feeling in the streets should lead to an opposite conclusion. Los Angeles was an “insurrection” or a “rebellion” precisely because people acted collectively rather than as individuals. There was clearly a political motivation for hurling rocks at police squad cars, which symbolized the vehicles of an oppressive, occupying army in the African-American community. No one, except perhaps the Israelis, would denigrate the “intifada” as just a “riot” against political authorities in the occupied West Bank. Similarly, African-Americans engaged in violence against white-owned property are motivated by the same political alienation which we see in the faces of young, militant Palestinians.
For African-American middle-class professionals, many of whom had come to believe the mythology about racial progress in the Reagan–Bush era, the King verdict was like a “firebell in the night.” They were jolted into the realization that they, like Rodney King, could be halted by the police, brutalized, kicked, and possibly killed, and that their assailants in police uniforms would probably walk away free. They were awakened by the haunting fear that their college-bound sons and daughters could be stopped for minor traffic violations, and later be found dead or dying in the city streets. This is what Representative Floyd Flake of Queens meant when he explained why the hopes of millions of African-Americans in the inherent fairness of the legal system were shattered: “When Rodney King was on the ground getting beat, we were all on the ground getting beat.”
But if we listen carefully to young African-Americans in the streets, this generation is expressing more than just its dissatisfaction with the King verdict. The violence was not directly generated by reactions to courtroom decisions. What our young people painfully realize is that the entire “system” – the government and its politicians, the courts and the police, the corporations and the media – has written them off. They recognize that Bush had virtually no coherent policies addressing urban problems until he was confronted by massive street violence. They feel instinctively that American businesses have no intention of hiring them at real “living wages,” that the courts refuse to treat them as human beings, and that the politicians take their votes and ignore their needs. By taking to the streets, they are crying out to society: “We will be heard! We will not be ignored, and we will not go away quietly. and if the system, and society, refuse to listen to us, we intend to burn it to the ground.”
White America wonders whether the Los Angeles “riot” represents just the beginning of a new wave of social unrest and violence throughout urban america. But the young people who challenged police cars and public authorities in the streets earlier this year were not responsible for introducing the question of violence into the context of American race relations. The essential definition of “racism” throughout American history has been the systematic discrimination and exploitation of a people defined as a subordinate and inferior “racial group.” And the force which perpetuated inequality of material conditions between African-Americans and whites, the absence of full voting and legal rights, the substandard pay at places of employment, was violence. During the period of slavery, from 1619 until 1865, few whites ever questioned whether African-Americans were not inherently inferior to whites. Slaves were the constant victims of all types of violence, from the forced separation of families to systematic rape and whippings.
Violence against African-Americans was endemic to the Jim Crow segregated South. Between 1884 and 1917 more than 3,600 African-Americans were lynched across the South. The terror was a deliberate part of a social order designed to maintain the permanent inferiority of African-Americans. The violence also preserved whites as a group with a privileged status, giving them access to higher wages, better schools and homes than any African-Americans could ever hope to attain.
When World War I broke out, African-Americans overwhelmingly supported the popular effort to defeat Germany. They purchased over $250 million in war bonds, hoping that their patriotism would help shield them from racist violence, and permit them to secure greater democratic rights. Yet immediately following the conflict, in the “Red Summer of 1919,” over seventy African-Americans were lynched and eleven were burned alive – some still in uniform.
When African-Americans mobilized in nonviolent demonstrations to overthrow the Jim Crow system a generation ago, they were again confronted by white violence. African-American churches and homes were bombed, civil-rights leaders and community organizers by the thousand were beaten and arrested, and dozens of key leaders were assassinated, most prominently Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers.
The eruption of inner-city violence in the 1960s was the first significant demonstration of illegal force by thousands of African-Americans, aimed against the symbols of white civil authority and private property. the urban “riots” of 1964–72 led to 250 deaths, 10,000 serious injuries, and 60,000 arrests. In Detroit’s 1967 civil unrest, 43 residents were killed, about 2,000 were injured, and over 2,700 white-owned businesses were torched and vandalized – half completely gutted by fire. Although the media described these acts of collective violence as “riots,” this obscures both the political element which motivated thousands of young African-Americans to take to the streets, and the degree of concurrence with these actions by African-Americans who stood on the sidelines. People committed arson, theft, and assaults not because they were “law-breakers” or “criminals”; they acted in the belief that the established civil authorities and the standard rules of society were structured in a way to preserve white power and domination over African-American lives. Thus African-Americans acted in violence against a system and its symbols which, in turn, represented violence and inequalities in their daily lives.
Violence by whites against African-Americans also continues to permeate African-American life, although it manifests itself no longer in the traditional forms of lynching or terrorism against african-american leaders. High rates of unemployment, the closure of businesses in African-American areas, the proliferation of drugs, and the failure by government to provide decent housing and health care for the poor are perceived as forms of institutional “violence.”
Although virtually all civil-rights leaders and African-American elected officials are firmly committed to legal forms of protest and oppose violent acts of disruption against civil authority or vandalism of property, the Los Angeles uprising may easily trigger a series of massive urban conflagrations over the next decade. For the young men who have been socialized in a world of urban street gangs, drugs, and black-on-black murder feel within them a nearly ungovernable rage against all forms of power and privilege. That rage may express itself in collective acts of violence and selective terror similar to those identified with the Irish Republican army in the United Kingdom, or by several radical Palestinian groups. If people feel that all avenues of realistic, effective change within the established order are blocked, they may move to a new level of violence, which could be targeted at officials, prominent executives, and the police. the next stage of racial violence could become more sophisticated and terrifying for the authorities.
If violence descends into terror, the historical figure who might provide the greatest insights for this generation of young African-Americans may not be Malcolm X but George Jackson. Sentenced at the age of eighteen to a term of “one year to life” for the theft of $70, Jackson spent his entire adult life in a California prison. Yet such was his radical influence within the black liberation movement that he was appointed national “field marshall” of the Black Panther Party while imprisoned. Before his execution in San Quentin prison in August 1971, Jackson authored two texts on the uses of “revolutionary violence,” Soledad Brother and Blood in My Eye. For Jackson, the struggle against racism and class exploitation had to transcend the nonviolent policies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil-rights movement.
“Any claims that nonviolent, purely nonviolent political agitation has served to force back the legions of capitalist expansion are false,” Jackson wrote in Soledad Brother. “there is no case of successful liberation without violence. How could you neutralize an army without violence?” Jackson believed that only through armed struggle could African-Americans finally achieve full human rights and self-determination. And if the government attempted to eliminate prominent African-American leaders and street organizers, the only appropriate response was political assassinations, bombings, and other methods of violence. “If terror is going to be a choice of weapons,” Jackson warned, “there must be funerals on both sides.”
The “Battle of Los Angeles” raises the fundamental question of whether white mainstream America will accept the missions of inner-city African-Americans and Latinos on the basis of full human equality without thousands of office buildings, businesses, and police stations being assaulted and burned to the ground. If George Jackson is right, then retaliatory violence by African-Americans and the widespread use of terror may be necessary. There will indeed be “funerals on both sides” so long as the legitimate grievances of African-Americans go unanswered. But ultimately, the choice of “violence or nonviolence” is not ours, but white America’s. Those who make peaceful change and democratic advancement impossible make violent revolution inevitable.
For more information on Beyond Black and White: Transforming African-American Politics, click here.
To read Verso's list of recommending reading for Ferguson, click here.